Life

Isolation fatigue: why we’re suddenly impatient about lockdown ending

We’re two months into lockdown in the UK and it’s no wonder everyone is feeling restless. Stylist explores where the true source of our impulse to break isolation is coming from ⁠–⁠ and why it’s important not to.

As we come into the eleventh week of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, the strain of isolation is hitting hard. 

The government’s 11 May update introduced new rules for exercising, and we’ve since been given permission to have picnics and socialise with one person from outside our households as long as we maintain a two-metre distance. With social distancing advice still in place and the uproar over government aide Dominic Cummings breaching the rules to travel from London to Durham still vehemently circulating, we wouldn’t be surprised if you were getting itchy feet. 

More of us are being hit with the impulse to break the rules. Though the messaging has been unhelpfully muddled, we know that coming into contact with anyone other than the people we live with isn’t just a bad idea, it’s dangerous. 

“Stay alert” messaging aside, it’s incredibly important for everyone to limit exposure to coronavirus as much as possible if we’re going to see the official end of lockdown as soon as we’re hoping for. Nevertheless, isolation fatigue has definitely started to set in and it’s a difficult feeling to wrestle with.

“Isolation fatigue is when we feel we simply cannot bear the restrictions currently in place. The desire to break free overwhelms us,” explains wellbeing brand Healthspan’s chartered psychologist Dr Meg Arroll. 

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“Whilst the overpowering urge to see friends and family, go out whenever we like and get back to normal may feel overpowering, it really is a matter of life and death to overcome this mindset. Isolation fatigue is a type of cognitive distortion psychologists call ‘frustration intolerance’.” In short, it’s a mindset sprung from feeling that our realities should be what we want, and annoyance at what it’s turned out to be. We should have spent bank holidays with family, warm evenings with friends and long weekends on holiday. Instead, we’ve been involuntarily separated from the people we care about for an unusual amount of time. 

We have to take all of the other facets of an isolated existence into consideration here, too. Many people are struggling with weariness and lethargy, which isn’t unusual at this time of lockdown. There are numerous reasons for this, including disruption to daily routine, reduced physical activity, boredom, stress eating and lack of natural light.

All of these combined disturb our circadian rhythm leading to poor sleep quality. In addition, in these troubling times, there are heightened levels of anxiety, stress, depression and emotional exhaustion. And, quite frankly, many of us are tired of dealing with it. And we’re tired of dealing with it without our usual support systems in place. 

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Everything is different right now: work, school, socialising, even getting groceries and we don’t know when it will get back to normal. It’s hard to know what adjustments we should make or if we’re doing enough. Especially when, for many of us, just getting through the day is a challenge.

If it’s the uncertainty around duration that is making it particularly hard to cope with restrictions right now, Dr Arroll advises trying to shift your perception. “Don’t think long-term, this is about mindset. If you tell yourself 12 weeks is a long time, it will feel like a very long time. If you frame it as three months to adapt, grow and explore in the face of adversity, you can turn this time into a unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

At this time of uncertainty, Professor Margareta James, founding director of the Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic, tells Stylist the brain reverts to survival mode. We are over-vigilant, highly alert and as everything changes so rapidly, we feel we need to keep up with the news. This way, we cannot avoid what we fear most – sadness, loss and more uncertainty coming our way.

This also means that we might be experiencing a complete lack of routine, particularly amid the underlying stress caused by the uncertainty we find ourselves in, all the while being bombarded by negative news. 

When we lack connection and encouragement from family or friends we can slide into unhealthy habits. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to connect this frantic disassociation from normal life as the overriding nudge towards breaking the social distancing advice and reaching out to familiar faces. It’s a strong urge, but we have to find healthy ways to manage it until lockdown restrictions are lifted. 

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Everybody finds different ways to cope and some are better than others. However, we need to be extra careful that the short term means of coping don’t turn into bad habits. When we stay in bed late, skip showers, have late meals or drink too much alcohol, for example, we start to shift the body’s chemical balance towards a dangerous cliff-edge. Once the chemical shift happens, it becomes very difficult to break the cycle. This is why it is really hard to break habits in general as logic fails and chemicals talk.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a hopeless situation, though - no matter how hard the urge to break the rules, abandon isolation and break social distancing may feel right now. Ahead, Professor James further outlines some advice for managing right now. 

Keep a healthy sleep rhythm (the body’s circadian rhythm): this is so we can function properly and sleep better. If the circadian rhythm is disrupted and we don’t go to bed until late and get up late, it has knock-on effects. We then feel fatigued, even depressed. So, make an effort to get outdoors in the daytime and reduce artificial light in the evenings, helping your body cope better.

Find meaning in what you’re doing: we also need to make an effort to organise our lives. Think about what gives you and your life meaning and give it some attention. Take back control and adopt a positive attitude.

Focus on the positive: what we are currently experiencing shall pass and whilst it’s all going on, make an effort to focus on the positives. If you look for them, you’ll find them.

Forge new helpful habits and structure your day: it doesn’t mean having a timetable, but it does mean being a bit adventurous and looking for ways to have some fun. Perhaps learn to cook or bake something? Read a new book? Learn a new skill? Finding a group of like-minded people you can connect with online to share your interest with? This is a time for adventure. Even if it’s from your sofa!

Most importantly, do something fun for you. Be open-minded. Forget about the news and try swapping it for relaxing music with a calming effect, for example. Humans are resilient and we will come through this time of adversity, hopefully with a wonderful, fresh sense of appreciating life in a different way. 

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here are three articles that might help.

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website.

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